An Open Letter to the Secular Community: My Thoughts

An Open Letter to the Secular Community: My Thoughts April 3, 2013

Earlier this year, the heads of major atheist and secular organizations met to discuss the future direction of the movement, including the role that feminism should play. Now those groups have published a joint open letter to the secular community from the proceeds of their meeting, calling for greater civility and more constructive dialog in our online interactions.

There are some parts of this that I take issue with, and I’ll get to those, but first let me say what I like about it, because I think there is a lot to like about it. Overall, this is a step in the right direction. As Stephanie Zvan says, it’s hard to imagine that anything like this could have been written even just a year ago. The emergence of Atheism Plus and other groups calling for more emphasis on social justice has played a major part in bringing these issues to the fore, and they deserve credit for that.

What I like about this open letter is that it outlines how feminist issues intersect with secular issues, that the idea of equal rights for women “flows from our core values” as ethical nonbelievers. I also like that it takes a strong stand against sexist hatred and harassment, which it rightfully condemns as “vile and despicable”, and encourages active moderation to shut down these unacceptable behaviors. These are clear signs of progress.

Now, there’s still room for improvement. Two groups, Secular Woman and the American Secular Census, refrained from signing the final version in part because they said it didn’t go far enough. Here’s one version of this critique:

What are the signatory organizations offering as their contribution — beyond the open-to-interpretation “best efforts” — to a more positive online presence for secularism? I felt the Open Letter should have been used as an opportunity for secular leadership to unambiguously commit to actions that would make them agents of concrete change in areas where they do have direct control and influence. (source)

This is a valid point, and I too would have liked to see a more concrete statement of what the signatories intend to do as institutions to combat sexism. But that progress could still happen: in the best-case scenario, I see this statement as a foundation for us to build on, akin to the Humanist Manifesto. The Humanist Manifesto was a statement of our values, our animating moral principles; it wasn’t a political action plan calling on its signatories to do X, Y and Z. But many secular groups can rightfully claim that the political activism they do engage in flows from the values laid out in that document.

If this open letter plays a similar role in inspiring secular organizations to do more – to take an institutional stand against sexism, to make public and unambiguous commitments to diversity, to pledge more attention to feminist issues where they intersect with our cares and concerns – then it will have served its purpose.

The other major criticism of the open letter, which I think is valid, is that its call for civility could be construed as overbroad. I agree that we should try to be patient and charitable with allies – I said so in my last post – but there are also people in the community who are acting in bad faith, whose aim is to harass and intimidate feminists into silence. It’s essential that we have the freedom to call them out as sharply as their behavior deserves, even if that criticism is seen as uncivil. Here’s another expression of that critique:

In offering a one-size-fits-all formula of listening more, being more compassionate, and so on, the Open Letter fails to distinguish between spirited debate where such strategies may be helpful and more serious situations where they won’t be — and might even be dangerous. (source)

Now, I don’t think the signatories intended to send this message. One of them, who prefers anonymity, said as much to me in a private e-mail:

It’s important to separate the small number of truly toxic and threatening misogynists out there from the larger group of people who are well-intentioned but aren’t expressing themselves well or need to be educated on an issue… the idea [of promoting civility] is to remove participants who are engaging in threatening or harassing behavior, while patiently trying to help along those who made an honest mistake and want to learn.

Still, this is a place where the wording of this statement could have been better, to make it clear that what they had in mind is a rule to shut out the bullies, not to silence justified anger. Just as the Humanist Manifesto has been revised and updated over time, I do hope that this is only the first stepping stone, and that there will be future revisions to make it even more unambiguous that the secular community is on the right side when it comes to feminism.

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